A stealth campaign is under way between Gov. Rick Perry (search) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (search) as Hutchison contemplates coming home from Washington to run for governor against her fellow Republican.

A contest between Perry and Hutchison in 2006 could be a bruising, big-name clash that could reveal just how conservative GOP voters are in President Bush's home state. Perry, for his part, wants Hutchison to stay in Washington.

"What I know is, it's not good for Texans to have a brutal, expensive, contentious primary and Texas to lose its seniority in the Senate. Everyone knows that," said Perry, a ferocious campaigner who has never lost a race.

Already, Perry's campaign, apparently attempting to portray Hutchison as left-leaning, hired a video crew in March to tape Hutchison and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) on stage together at a women's history museum event. The tape shows Clinton saying she was "delighted that Kay is my partner on so many important fronts." Perry supporters circulated the video via e-mail.

A few days later, Perry himself was connected to Clinton with the release of a 1993 letter in which Perry, as Texas agriculture commissioner, told the then-first lady that her efforts on health care reform were "commendable."

Also, a caller recently to a Dallas-Fort Worth radio show identified himself as "Charlie from Flower Mound" and praised Hutchison's possible gubernatorial run. It was later revealed he was Chad Wilbanks, a Hutchison campaign consultant.

With 12 years in the Senate, Hutchison is the senior senator from Texas, has an important Appropriations Committee assignment and is seen by some as a future vice presidential nominee. But she plans to announce this summer whether she will run for governor.

Her campaign manager says the 61-year-old Hutchison could offer Texas the direction it is not getting from Perry in the debate in the Legislature over how the state should fund its public schools. Her supporters praise her leadership qualities.

"She has what I call the 'vision thing.' And she's the Energizer Bunny," said Cathy Obriotti Green, a Bush appointee to the Texas higher education board.

In 2001, at 58, Hutchison and her husband adopted two babies. Her campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, dismissed speculation from some quarters that Hutchison wants to be governor because that would make it easier for her to raise her children.

He disputed the notion that being governor is somehow less taxing than being senator. And he said any suggestion that Hutchison cannot do a difficult job and still be a mother is "one of the most sexist things I've ever heard in my life."

It could become a three-way race on the Republican side: Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn — a fast-talking 65-year-old who was the first woman mayor of Austin and calls herself "one tough grandma" — may jump into the primary.

It is almost certain that Perry, 55, would try to sway conservative primary voters by highlighting his differences with Hutchison over abortion. Perry and Strayhorn both oppose abortion except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother. Hutchison supports abortion up to the point the fetus becomes viable outside the womb.

Some Texas Republicans view Hutchison as the GOP answer to Clinton if Clinton runs for president in 2008. In a letter to Hutchison from members of the State Republican Executive Committee urging her to stay in the Senate, one state party official added, "Run for Pres — beat Hillary!!!" Other have suggested she would be a good vice president.

If the two Republicans square off it would be a costly primary battle.

During Perry's last race, he defeated Democrat millionaire Tony Sanchez (search). Sanchez shelled out close to $70 million, while Perry's campaign spent $26 million in Texas' most expensive election. In the last days of that campaign, Perry ran TV ads trying to link Sanchez to murderous Mexican drug dealers.

"The governor has been through it," said his campaign director, Luis Saenz. "He's had tough races and is prepared to run another one, if that's the case."

Musician and author Kinky Friedman is running for governor as an independent.No Democrat has formally announced.

"You have to go look under 'sacrificial lambs' in the Yellow Pages," said Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, referring to Texas' strong Republican tilt.

Perry's supporters appear most concerned with Hutchison.

Joe Solis, a small-business owner in San Antonio, said he wants Hutchison to stay in the Senate to prevent the closing of another military base in his city.

"It doesn't make sense to create this chaos and dysfunctional situation," Solis said. "I pray daily that she decides to stay in Washington, D.C."